How are childhood cancers treated?
Treatments are chosen for childhood cancers based mainly on the type and stage (extent) of the cancer. Treatment options might include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and/or other types of treatment. In many cases, more than one of these treatments is used.
There are exceptions, but childhood cancers usually respond well to chemotherapy because they tend to be cancers that grow fast. (Most forms of chemotherapy affect cells that are growing quickly.) Children’s bodies are also generally better able to recover from higher doses of chemotherapy than are adults’ bodies. Using more intensive treatments gives doctors a better chance of treating the cancer effectively, but it can also lead to more short- and long-term side effects. Unlike chemotherapy, radiation can often cause more serious side effects in children (especially very young children) than in adults, so its use sometimes needs to be limited. Doctors do their best to balance the need for intensive treatment with the desire to limit side effects as much as possible.
For detailed information on how a certain type of childhood cancer is treated, see our document on that specific type of cancer.
The cancer treatment team
Children with cancer and their families have special needs that can be best met at children’s cancer centers. Treatment of childhood cancer in specialized centers is coordinated by a team of experts who know the differences between adult and childhood cancers, as well as the unique needs of children with cancer and their families. This team usually includes:
- Pediatric oncologists: doctors who specialize in using medicines to treat children with cancer
- Pediatric surgeons: doctors who specialize in performing surgery in children
- Radiation oncologists: doctors who specialize in using radiation to treat cancer
- Pediatric oncology nurses: nurses who specialize in caring for children with cancer
- Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs): nurses and other professionals who are specially trained and licensed to practice medicine alongside doctors
The team can also include many professionals other than nurses and doctors. Children’s cancer centers have psychologists, social workers, child life specialists, nutritionists, rehabilitation and physical therapists, and educators who can support and care for the entire family. For more information, see our document Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Understanding the Health Care System.
Getting the best treatment possible
Treating children with cancer requires special expertise. Today, most children with cancer are treated at specialized children’s cancer centers. These centers are often members of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG). Going to a hospital that specializes in treating childhood cancer helps ensure that a child gets the best available cancer treatment.
These centers offer the most up-to-date-treatment by conducting clinical trials (studies of promising new therapies). Children’s cancer centers often conduct many clinical trials at any one time, and in fact most children treated at these centers take part in a clinical trial as part of their treatment.
Clinical trials are one way to get state-of-the- art cancer care for your child. They may be the only way to get access to some newer treatments. They are also the best way for doctors to learn better methods to treat cancer. Still, they might not be right for every child. Talk to your child’s cancer care team to learn about possible clinical trials for your child, and ask about the pros and cons of enrolling in one of them.
If your child qualifies for a clinical trial, it’s up to you whether or not to enter (enroll) your child into it. Older children, who can understand more, usually must also agree to take part in the clinical trial before the parents’ consent is accepted.
To learn more about clinical trials, see our document Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know.
Last Medical Review: 01/13/2015
Last Revised: 01/13/2015